A Sincere Environmentalist: “If I Was a Student, I Would March Against Myself”


ConlinMichelleEnvironmentalist.jpg   Environmentalist Michele Conlin scooters around New York during the winter.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


(p. D7)  Ms. Conlin, . . . , said she saw “An Inconvenient Truth” in an air-conditioned movie theater last summer. “It was like, ‘J’accuse!’ ” she said. “I just felt like everything I did in my life was contributing to a system that was really problematic.” Borrowing a phrase from her husband, she continued, “If I was a student, I would march against myself.”


For the full story, see: 

PENELOPE GREEN.  "The Year Without Toilet Paper."  The New York Times  (Thurs., March 22, 2007):  D1 & D7.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


As Online Book Sales Increase, So Do Total Book Sales

   Source of graphs:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


The graph on the left would not surprise Chris Anderson of The Long Tail.  Selling books online supplies greater variety, so that when online sales grow, overall book sales grow too. 


(p. B1)  For six years, Borders Group Inc. has pursued a distinctly unfashionable strategy: betting big on bricks and mortar while paying little attention to the online world. But with online sales capturing an ever-increasing share of the book business, the No. 2 book retailer is reversing course.

Today, Borders announced its intention to reopen its own branded e-commerce Web site in early 2008, ending an alliance with Amazon.com Inc. that had been the core of its online strategy.


For the full story, see: 

JEFFREY A. TRACHTENBERG.  "Borders Business Plan Gets a Rewrite; It Will Reopen Web Site, Give Up Most Stores Abroad, Close Many Waldenbooks."   The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., March 22, 2007):   B1 & B2. 


BordersStore.jpg JonesGeorgeBordersCEO.gif  Photo on left is a Borders store; image on right is of Borders CEO George Jones.  Source of photo and image:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.


Beautiful Downtown Burbank, Runs Amok

Cultural history background for the young:  at the beginning of every installment of the "Rowan and Martin Laugh-In" TV comedy review (circa 1968-1973), someone would sarcastically intone that the show was being broadcast from "beautiful downtown Burbank." 

Excerpted below is Daniel Pink’s incredible conversation with a Burbank city clerk:


(p. 199)  What led me to this 100,000-person city in California’s San Fernando Valley—past the fish fountains, to the steps of City Hall—was a rumor I’d heard that Burbank puts free agents in jail.

. . .

(p. 200)  After fifteen minutes of probing, here’s the gist of what he tells me:  If I want to write from a home office in Burbank, I first must apply for a home occupation license.  The city would examine my application, and then come to my house to inspect the office from which I intended to work.  Once the inspector deemed my home office safe for writing and unthreatening to my neighbors, I could begin earning a living, my workplace now officially blessed by the city.

But that was only the beginning.  I’d have to pay a special tax.  And I’d have to abide by the strictures of Burbank Municipal Code Section 31-672—which, among other things, said:  My office couldn’t be larger than four hundred square feet or 20 percent of my home’s square footage.  I couldn’t put my home office in a "garage, carport, or any other area required or designated for the parking of vehicles."  The only "materials, equipment, and/or tools" I could use to do my work were things used by "a normal household."  I couldn’t use my home office to repair cars, sell guns, or operate a kennel.  And the only folks who could ever work with me in the office were people who lived with me.

That last provision alarmed me.

Pointing to Section 31-672(c), I ask, "Does this mean I can’t have a meeting at my house?"

"Yep," says the clerk.  "You’d have to somewhere else."

"Let me get this straight," I say.  "Let’s say I’m a writer collaborating on a screenplay.  If my collaborator comes over and we work on the screenplay together, that’s against the law?  It’s a misdemeanor to have a meeting at your house?"

"Yep," says the clerk.

"Isn’t California a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ state?"


Burbank, we we have a problem.  I hope it’s unlikely that a free agent who has three meetings at her house, and gets caught, prosecuted, and convicted each time, goes to jail for the rest of her life.  But the mere possibility reflects a wider problem with America’s legal, policy, and tax regimes.  They were built for a (p. 201) work world that has largely disappeared, and are ill equipped for the new world that has arrived.



Pink, Daniel H.  Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live.  New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

(Note:  italics in original; ellipsis added.)


“The Odor of Stagnation”


(p. 244)  Whenever I walk into a public school, I stagger a bit at the entrance.  The moment I step across the threshold, I’m nearly toppled by a wave of nostalgia.  Most schools I’ve visited in the twenty-first century look and feel exactly like the central Ohio, public schools I attended in the 1970s.  The classrooms are the same size.  The desks stand in those same rows.  Bulletin boards preview the next national holiday.  The hallways even smell the same.  Sure, some classrooms might have a computer or two.  But in most respects, the schools American children attend today seem indistinguishable from the ones their parents and grandparents attended generations earlier.

At first such deja vu warmed my soul.  But then I thought about it.  How many other places look and feel exactly as they did twenty, thirty, or forty years ago?  Banks don’t.  Hospitals don’t.  Grocery stores don’t.  Maybe the sweet nostalgia I sniffed on those classroom visits was really the odor of stagnation.



Pink, Daniel H.  Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live.  New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

(Note:  italics in original.)


Destroying Dams Can Hurt the Environment Too


SandyRiverDamRemoved.jpg   In response to environmental concerns, the Sandy River Dam is destroyed.  Source of photo:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


The WSJ summarizes an article from the March Scientific American:


Environmental concerns have led the U.S. to pull down an increasing number of aging dams in the last decade, returning water to dry streams, birds to wetlands, and migratory fish to rivers. But environmentalists are also learning a torn-down dam can leave a host of challenges, writes Jane C. Marks, an ecologist at Northern Arizona University.

Sediment that has accumulated behind the dam can muddy the waters of a river, choking insects and algae that fish need to survive. Seeds buried in the sediment might unleash alien crops that kill local species and contaminated sediment might make fish poisonous.  . . .

Exotic fish can also become a problem. A dam in Arizona had been blocking exotic fish such as bass and sunfish from getting into a creek. Biologists were concerned that, without the dam, local fish in the creek would be wiped out as the exotic fish arrived.

. . .

Dams can cause dilemmas beyond the environment. Ms. Marks mentions how a father and son bitterly disagreed over the Loire dams’ removal. The father wanted the salmon and wild waters of his youth to return, whereas the son wanted to preserve the swims and boating trips of his youth.


For the full summary, see:

"Informed Reader; Environment; As U.S. Tears Down Dams and Rivers Rebound, Scientists Find a Flood of Ecological Risks."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., February 21, 2007):  B12.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


“A Triumph of Engaged Amateurism”


Steven Johnson has a great passage on the contribution of the amateur in The Ghost Map story (see below).

This is a theme that resonates.  In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson makes the case for amateurs in astronomy.  (Is it he, who points out that the root of the word "amateur" is to love?)

Stigler had an important early paper in which he discusses the professionalization of the economics profession.  He praises the results, but what he presents provides some grist for the mill of criticism too.  For example, the exit of the amateurs, reduced the applicability of the work, and turned research more toward internal puzzle-solving, and model-building.

The web is a leveler in science, as suggested in an NBER paper.  Maybe the result will be a resurgence of amateurism, and maybe that won’t be all bad.


(p. 202)  But Broad Street should be understood not just as the triumph of rogue science, but also, and just as important, as the triumph of a certain mode of engaged amateurism.  Snow himself was a kind of amateur.  He had no institutional role where cholera was concerned; his interest in the disease was closer to a hobby than a true vocation.  But Whitehead was an amateur par excellence.  He had no medical training, no background in public health.  His only credentials for solving the mystery behind London’s most devastating outbreak of disease were his open and probing mind and his intimate knowledge of the community. 



Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.


(Note:  A probably relevant, much praised book, that I have never gotten around to reading, is Martin J.S. Rudwick’s The Great Devonian Controversy:  The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists.)


Global Warming Would Give Access to Huge Oil and Gas Now Under Ice


The WSJ summarizes a Feb. 18, 2007 article from the Boston Globe.  Here is an excerpt from the summary:


(p. B12) Among the many changes global warming might bring, the melting ice in the Arctic could eventually give access to the oil and gas under the ice, estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to amount to a quarter of the world’s reserves. Fifty-five million years ago the region was a warm land of crocodiles and palm trees whose remains have since become fossil fuel, reports Drake Bennett. The Arctic ice has made the fuel practically inaccessible by making drilling hard and blocking ships.


For the full summary, see:

"Informed Reader; Global Warming; Arctic Melting May Clear Path to Vast Deposits of Oil and Gas."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., February 21, 2007):  B12.


Chambers of Commerce Dump Commerce and Embrace Big Government


The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.

. . .

In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, "Rip-Off," "state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes."

. . .

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce boasts that the organization’s "core mission is to fight for business and free enterprise before Congress, the White House, regulatory agencies . . . and governments around the world." The national chamber has done just that, pushing tort reform and free trade — but in the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other "tax eater" entities.

. . .

"I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions," says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. "I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations." 


For the full commentary, see: 

STEPHEN MOORE.  "Tax Chambers."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., February 10, 2007):  A8.

(Note:  ellipses added, except the one in the quote following the word "agencies.")


Private Money Can Top Government Money in Space, as in IT


Lots of people are building new IT companies. You can start a company and sell it to Yahoo! or Google in a couple of years. But so can anyone else. Aerospace is different. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy in 1962: We choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.

That’s why, as a long-time investor in IT and Internet start-ups, I’m now spending more and more time on private aviation and commercial space start-ups. I’m trailing an illustrius crew of IT pioneers: Elon Musk (Space-X, rockets, formerly with PayPal), Vern Raburn (Eclipse Aviation, very light jets, formerly at Microsoft, Symantec and Lotus), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin, rockets, and still at Amazon, too!), Jeff Greason (XCOR, rockets and formerly with Intel) and Ed Iacobucci (DayJet, air taxi operator, and founder of Citrix).

. . .

On the space side, there’s a . . . strong parallel with the world of IT. The establishment in "space" is the government and especially the military, just as it once was (along with academia) for the Internet. I remember the days when commerce on the Internet was considered sleazy—but look at the innovations and productivity it unleashed.

In the same way, the current priests of space are dismayed by the privately funded space start-ups—unsafe, sleazy, frivolous. Imagine: Ads on the side of a rocket ship! Well, why not, if it helps pay for the fuel… and the R&D that designed the thing?


For the full commentary, see: 

ESTHER DYSON  "New Horizons for the Intrepid VC."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., March 20, 2007):  A19.

(Note:  ellipses added, except for the ellipsis following the word "fuel" which was in the original.)


Why Starbucks Coffee is a Bargain


(p. 161)  These coffee places, most of which didn’t even exist ten years ago, had several virtues.  They were always in convenient locations.  They permitted, even welcomed, patrons to sit and talk for several hours.  And they had tables for spreading out my materials and electrical outlets for plugging in my equipment.  In short, they provided a four-hour office rental for the price of a three-dollar latte.

. . .  

(p. 162)  Starbucks and its caffeinated cousins are part of what I call the free agent infrastructure.  The components of this infrastructure, which I’ll review in a moment, include copy shops, office supply superstores, bookstore cafés, overnight delivery services, executive suites, and the Internet.  Like America’s system of federal highways, the free agent infrastructures form the physical foundation on which the economy operates.  But unlike the federal highway system, which was planned and paid for by the government, this infrastructure emerged more or less spontaneously.  Like so many other aspects of Free Agent Nation, it is self-organized.  Nobody is in charge of it.  That’s why it woks.  It  works so well, in fact, that few people realize that this collection of commercial Establishments even constitutes an infrastructure.



Pink, Daniel H. Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.


Internet Transmits and Applies Libertarian Ideas


Source of book image:  http://ec1.images-amazon.com/images/P/1586483501.01._SS500_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg


Today the Internet has become, Mr. Doherty notes, an efficient way to transmit libertarian ideas and show their practical application. (With its decentralized, free-wheeling ethos, the Internet is itself libertarian without even trying to be.) Jimmy Wales, the man who started the interactive online encyclopedia Wikipedia, believes that "facts can help set the world free." The largest retail market in the world is eBay, which allows anyone to buy and sell without a government license.

Louis Rosetto, the "radical capitalist" who founded Wired magazine, notes that, even if libertarian ideas must now push against a statist status quo, "contrarians end up being the drivers of change." Among the most ornery contrarians, he says, are the libertarians "laboring in obscurity, if not in derision." They have managed "to keep a pretty pure idea going, adapting it to circumstances and watching it be validated by the march of history." Mr. Doherty has rescued libertarianism from its own obscurity, eloquently capturing the appeal of the "pure idea," its origins in great minds and the feistiness of its many current champions.


For the full review, see: 

JOHN H. FUND.  "BOOKSHELF; Free to Choose, and a Good Thing, Too."  The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., February 15, 2007):  D7.